The Constitution has enjoyed an almost mystical reverence in American life. For that reason, it may be difficult to understand that it would have been greeted with anything less than automatic approval—even adulation—by Americans in 1787. Well, in some places it was. But in other places it was not. Was it because there were some people who were skeptical about the Constitution?
The Skeptics and the Constitution
No matter how solid and unmoving the Constitution now seems on our horizons, it was never going to get above those horizons unless the states endorsed it. In general, it meant outmaneuvering of what Gouverneur Morris denounced as the “state officers, and those interested in the state governments” who “will intrigue and turn the popular current against it.”
We should not discount as easily as Morris did the motives of people like Patrick Henry—or, for that matter, George Mason and other skeptics. Americans like Henry and Mason had fought a high-stakes battle against the greatest empire in the Atlantic world for the sake of governing themselves in their own way. They were not easily going to be persuaded that they should now embrace what looked to them like the re-imposition of the imperial rule they had thrown off.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Motives of the Federalists
The motives of the Federalists were not entirely free from self-interest; it was a matter of principle to complain about the arrogance of pin-headed legislatures who imagined that they could redistribute debt and property with a wave of their hand and to their own benefit. But it might not be quite so noble when it turned out that establishing good credit and restraining the states from printing funny money also had some very direct personal benefits for the Constitution’s friends.
Rarely, in a democracy, will high purpose march unattended by self-aggrandizement; in fact, the latter might turn out to be the former’s best friend. It is also rare in a democracy that high purpose wins its place just by showing up; high purpose has to win votes, too, and so did the Constitution. There were, however, three elements which were working in the Constitution’s favor as it prepared to make its long and dangerous passage of the state ratifying conventions.
Learn more about the Philadelphia Convention of 1787.
Factors Working in Favor of the Constitution
First of all, working in its favor was prestige. It was the product of a long convention involving some of the most respected figures in American life, starting with George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and their prestige would pay handsome dividends in swaying opinion. “It is probable General Washington will be the President of the United States,” reasoned Alexander Hamilton that will “ensure a wise choice of men to administer the government.”
A second factor working in the Constitution’s favor was surprise. The convention had kept its secrets amazingly well, which meant that its critics had to scramble hastily to absorb the Constitution and then generate enough criticisms to slow it to a halt.
A third factor working in the Constitution’s favor was organization. The Constitution emerged from the convention with a solid cadre of supporters who could provide the intellectual firepower to engage, if not actually overwhelm, the objections raised by the skeptics.
The Pennsylvania Assembly
There was also a fourth element working in the Constitution’s favor, and that was momentum. Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania delegation to the convention moved at once to lay the Constitution before the Pennsylvania Assembly and asked for the calling of a state convention. The Pennsylvania Assembly was meeting on the second floor of the State House, so Thomas Fitzsimmons, in Franklin’s behalf, only had to climb the stairs on September 17, 1787 to ask for leave to introduce the Constitution to the Pennsylvania Assembly.
Franklin, in his role as president of the assembly, wanted quick action, as he wanted Pennsylvania to be the first to offer the ten-mile square district which would become the national capital. He would not get his wish, though. The assembly was scheduled to take an adjournment from September 29 until October 9 for elections, and he could not call for the ratifying convention until word had been received from Congress that it was actually sending the Constitution to the states for ratification.
Learn more about Benjamin Franklin and the formative years of the republic.
The Increase in Momentum to Ratify the Constitution
When that word finally arrived on September 28, George Clymer, one of the Pennsylvania delegation to the convention, moved to call a state ratifying convention, which would hold elections on the first Tuesday in November and meet on the last day of November. That slight delay gave the Delaware legislature the chance to jump ahead and call a ratifying convention, with elections to be held on November 9 and 10.
When the Delaware convention met in Dover on December 4, the 30 members of the convention had but one thing in mind—that the new Constitution would unshackle the tiny state from paying tariffs to Pennsylvania for goods shipped through the port of Philadelphia. The move to ratify on December 7 was swift and unanimous and it was first among all the states to ratify.
In short order, Connecticut and Massachusetts called their town meetings to choose delegates to a state convention to meet in November and in January. New Jersey called a convention which met in Trenton and ratified the Constitution on December 18, followed by Georgia, whose convention was called on October 26 and met in Augusta for all of two days before voting to ratify.
But from that point, the momentum began to slow.
Common Questions about the Beginning of the Ratification of the US Constitution
George Mason and Patrick Henry thought that the Constitution was the re-imposition of the imperial rule that they had thrown off after winning a high-stakes battle against the greatest empire in the Atlantic world.
Benjamin Franklin could not call for a ratifying convention until word had been received from the Congress that it was actually sending the Constitution to the states for ratification. Also, the assembly was scheduled to take an adjournment from September 29 until October 9, 1787, for elections.
Thomas Fitzsimmons introduced the Constitution to the Pennsylvania Assembly in place of Benjamin Franklin.